Tuesday, September 29, 2009

before I tell you what I've been thinking, you should know that I've already changed my mind

Lately I have been wondering how an artist can play a vital role in a small community. Is it possible for an artist to be needed in the same way that a grocer, plumber, electrician, doctor or car mechanic is needed? Each of those aforementioned people possesses a certain specialized knowledge or skill that they offer as a service to their community. What is a contemporary artist's specialty? What necessary knowledge or service can we provide to the communities in which we live? It seems that most artists live in one place and show their work elsewhere. With the few exceptions being those who specialize in a craft or material that relates to souvenir items purchased by tourists visiting that local area (IE glass artists in Venice), most artists earn their living from sales made to people living outside of their community. Is it possible for all artists, even conceptual artists, to make and show their work primarily in the place where they live, to the people they rely on and interact with on a daily basis?

My obsession with this issue wasn't spawned by the recent trend of "going local" that is mostly associated with food, although I'm sure it's related. It is probably due more to the fact that I currently live in a small community, a village in fact. The word quaint doesn't exactly describe it, although it definitely is. But in addition to being a village, Alfred is also a college town, the home of both Alfred University and Alfred State College. Many people have been transplanted here from other places that are larger and more populated, and consequently offer more of a sense of anonymity. The transition from a place like New York City, where you can easily walk the streets for an entire day without seeing one recognizable face, to a place like Alfred, where everyone knows your name, so to speak, can be quite jarring.

The grocery store here in Alfred, called Kinfolk, is the size of a typical suburban home's garage. You cannot enter it without being noticed by its keepers, who are named Jessen and Elliot. Elliot (or should I call him "the grocer"?) told me today, when I stopped in to buy some root vegetables, that many people feel uncomfortable in Kinfolk for that very reason, and prefer instead to shop at Wegman's, which is almost a half an hour away. When you shop at a place like Wegman's you can easily remain anonymous. Wegman's employees only look at you when you ask them to, when you need assistance, or when you're checking out. The first time you enter a place like Kinfolk it's hard not to feel self-conscious. Even though it's only the size of your garage, it's hard to imagine where to find the things you might be looking for. It's not like the grocery store you grew up going to with your mom, where you rode in the cart through large aisles full of only cereal or pet food. At Kinfolk, the beets are in a plastic tub that's hidden behind the eggs in one of the two coolers. The laundry detergent is above the only freezer, which contains a few Ben-and-Jerry-sized pints of ice cream, frozen meat from the farm down the road, and pizza dough that's usually buried all the way in the back under the frozen fruits and vegetables. How do you figure out where to find these things, if every other grocery store you've encountered in your life has signage at the end of every long and typically organized aisle? You have to ask Elliot or Jessen, or you just have to poke around.

Once I got over the disorientation of entering a grocery store that small, and once my initial assumption that there was no was no way they'd have everything I needed was proven wrong, I grew to love Kinfolk and its keepers. I love that they know my name and which house I live in, and that they'll return money to me that I accidentally dropped in their store 3 weeks earlier (this actually happened once!). But not everyone feels this way. Elliot told me that he has personally delivered lost items to some of his patrons in the past, and they were perturbed and put off by the fact that he happened to know where they live. Because of this, he is personal and friendly with some customers, sensing their social temperament, but he is purposefully distant and aloof with others, pretending not to notice them when they enter, because that is what they seem to prefer. He has to ascertain which people to treat in which manner, but he can only make that judgement if they stop by regularly. Newcomers are a coin toss.

Why is anonymity so appealing?

(I am getting a little off track, and feeling a little sleepy, so I will stop here for now and address this question another day....)


lotsofglue said...

I have two theories-
1.Anonymity is appealing to people who have adopted and embraced the internet culture.
You can post, find, say what you want without 99.9% of the people who read it actually knowing you.
I have several friends who have one *social* page for their friends and family and then another for their friends, or just online friends.
They do not want to be honest. With themselves or others for whatever deep psychological reason.

2. People have the God syndrome that they choose who they invite into their lives to be friends.
I have noticed over the last couple of years that common courtousy is almost gone, so is common sense. It is really sad.

Alicia Eggert said...

Thanks for that response. I guess I hadn't even made the connection to internet culture until you mentioned it. I definitely have friends that have blogs that they don't attach their names to, and one of them is also a writer like yourself.

Perhaps people are just afraid to put themselves out there? Pseudonyms! Perhaps it stems all the way back to when authors began using pen names, concealing their real identities like Samuel Clemens did by calling himself Mark Twain...

Ha! I was just about to publish this comment when I glanced down and noticed that the first thing I have to do is "choose an identity"!